In late 2016, the election of Donald Trump, along with the British exit from the European Union (Brexit) were the exclamation points for a world that was demonstrably unhappy with the status quo. Populism was on the rise and it was a frightening time for the political and financial establishment. Former Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper conducts one of the most objective and thoughtful analyses of the changes taking place in the world then and now in his new book Right Here Right Now: Politics and Leadership in the Age of Disruption.
Harper, who served as Prime Minister of Canada for a decade from 2005 to 2015, makes the case that those who focus on Donald Trump's abrasive personality, his truculence and bellicosity, are missing the big picture. Harper argues that Trump's election was not because of the President's personal appeal, but because a large number of Americans are not doing well economically, and feel left behind in today's climate of globalization and free trade. They are casualties of the widening gap between rich and poor. They do not understand why the stock market and corporate America rebounded from the crash of 2008, while they are still trying to dig their way out of the rubble from that time. While the establishment in both major political parties were sending the message that these people were benefiting from free trade and globalization, this message did not match their reality. Trump was the only candidate who seemed to get this and as a result, many blue collar (and blue) voters who had given their support to Barack Obama in the past two elections chose to park their support elsewhere. Harper makes it clear that he is no Trump fan, but also states that it is a mistake to fail to listen to what these Trump voters are saying. As Harper puts it: "We can pretend that this is a false perception, but it is not... We can keep trying to convince people that they misunderstand their own lives, or we can try to understand what they are saying."
Harper presents a very intelligent and dispassionate discussion about the state of modern politics. He reviews globalization, free trade, market economies and immigration and looks at each of these rationally rather than emotionally. For example, he notes how most people look at globalization and free trade in terms of absolutes. People characterize them as either good or bad. The reality, according to Harper, is that these things are good for some people and bad for others. They have significantly reduced poverty in third world and other developing nations, a very positive result. But in industrialized nations they have meant a lower standard of living for the lower and middle classes. Harper points out that Donald Trump won big in counties in which the average income declined over the last 10 years due to globalization and free trade. This enabled Trump to win the traditionally blue states (with large blue-collar populations) of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Similarly, immigration can been seen as humanitarian, especially when the immigrants come from countries with high refugee populations. But as Harper points out, there is a price that must be accepted along with an expansive immigration policy, and that is a corresponding decline in average income of the adoptive country.
Harper says that it is a mistake to write off Trump voters as bigots and racists. Many are the same people who voted for Barack Obama, the first African-American president, in the last two elections. Instead, these are people who are tired of being told by perceived elites that these policies are good for them, while they watch their incomes decline. Instead of news reports focusing on Kanye West's hat or other pop culture aspects of Trumpworld, Harper says that the discussion needs to be about how to improve the economic lot of working people in the modern globalized world.
Harper is critical of the political establishment in both parties. Though Harper is an unapologetic conservative, he takes aim at Republicans for their self-serving policy of tax cuts for the wealthy. Generally, he says that both parties seem to be fixated on party doctrine and ideology rather than listening to people's legitimate grievances. While there is much he dislikes about Trump, he says that the President is correct about the vast inequity of the trade agreements with China and says that it makes no sense to call something "free trade" when one trading partner restricts sales of goods in their country, while flooding the market of their trading partner with cheap goods produced for slave wages and sold in unrestricted quantities by the Wal-Marts of the world. The one-sided nature of this kind of an agreement has devastating economic consequences. Harper argues that the real political debate should be about creating a better economic future for lower and middle income families.
For much of this book, Harper's nerdish inner policy wonk takes over, and this makes portions of this book laborious to read. He packs a lot in 171 pages. In other parts, Harper has trouble reigning in his fundamental conservative core. But the strength of this book is in its calm and intelligent discussion of the issues that are its focus. The target audience for this book is neither the rabid conservative nor the vitriolic Trump hater. It is designed for the reader who can put principles above personalities, one who is willing and able to take an intellectually honest look at what is why many are struggling economically and how this problems is best addressed. As the author concludes, "whether you accept the analysis and prescriptions in this book or not, I hope it will cause you to think what we can do in this age of disruption - right here, right now."